Reform or Rupture With The UN Security Council And Peacekeeping

The UN General Assembly operates as a clockwork machine, replicating the same behaviors over decades. Like any political machine tuned West, its actions and inactions perpetuate the status quo of empire, capital, and hegemony. At the heart of the UN is an ostensible mission of keeping or creating peace, but one undermined by a small coterie of countries that believe they can permanently remain judge, jury, and executioner.

Peacekeeping serves to reinforce the status quo, which also happens to be the shared interest of the UN’s five-permanent-member Security Council (P5). As the P5, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Russia, and China are more likely to agree to freeze a conflict than resolve it. When the vetoes of the Security Council prevent the UN from addressing war crimes, the UN risks being dragged into irrelevance. Acknowledging at the 78th UN General Assembly the crisis of the UN’s failure to adapt to the present, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared, “It’s reform or rupture.”

Since the UN was founded in October 1945, the world has significantly decolonized and has not seen an interstate war on the scale of the World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. This time correlates to the existence of the UN, but does not mean the UN is responsible for the decline in large-scale interstate conflict. This reduction in violence can also be explained by the changing landscape of world diplomacy and the nature of armed wars. Experts and scholars continue to debate how to measure the success of UN peacekeeping missions, with immediate goals, like a reduction in civilian casualties, weighed against other measures, like resolving the conflict between warring parties, or at least containing it so the war doesn’t spill over to other states. These measures fail to take into account conflicts where the P-5 block the UN from acting, and while conflict containment serves the broader goal of stability between imperialist powers, it lets violence be managed, rather than stopped.

In 2021 alone the UN deployed over 75,000 troops in 12 different ongoing peacekeeping missions, at the cost of $6.3 billion, of which the United States is the biggest funder. Ironically, out of the 71 missions that the UN has engaged in since 1948, zero have been established in the P-5, even though members like France, Russia, and the United States have violated more than a handful of UN resolutions themselves

While these “peacekeeping” missions aren’t supposed to be militaristic, they are increasingly used by the P-5 to maintain imperialism under the guise of “humanitarianism.” In many instances, the UN itself has carried out crimes against humanity, like the Child Trafficking ring run by over 100 UN “peacekeepers” in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or the over 41 identified UN troops who participated in sexual misconduct in the Central African Republic Mission (MINUSCA). 

The UN’s use of force was authorized for peacekeeping missions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in 1999, and mandates of force have repeatedly been pushed by the P-5 to carry out unclear and incompetent interventions in Bosnia, the Congo, and Somalia. The Security Council on multiple occasions has even  “contracted out” interventions by member states to carry out interventions like the US-led and UN-backed Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991, or the US’s intervention in Korea in 1950, which was conducted under the UN flag. Throughout its history, the UN “peacekeeping” has been a tool to advance the foreign policies of the P-5 over the objections of other nations.

The UN’s oldest and first mission, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) was established in 1948 to “supervise implementation of the Israel-Arab Armistice Agreements”. Today, the UNTSO “military observersremain in the region, with a broader mission to “Monitor ceasefires, supervise armistice agreements, prevent isolated incidents from escalating” in the Middle East. Seventy-five years after UNTSO was stood up, the Security Council is still struggling to use proper diction when talking about a documented genocide. Instead of working to stop, much less recognize, crimes against humanity, the U.S. and Russia are playing a game called “who can block the most votes with veto?” in actions condemning Israel’s occupation of Palestine or Russia’s strikes against Ukraine. The history of UN peacekeeping is intertwined with its long role in monitoring or observing, but not resolving conflict.  

More recently, just weeks into the current bombardment of Palestine, the Director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York, Craig Mokhiber, resigned writing that the UN had “failed”  in his last communication from the office, adding that both the US and European powers were complicit in ethnic cleansing stating, “Once again we are seeing a genocide unfolding before our eyes and the organization we serve appears powerless to stop it.” 

In the face of the escalations that have killed over 25,000 innocent Palestinians, more than half of whom are children, the UNTSO mission which claims it has been “first in peace” has been last in everything. Not only has it made a constrained, lackluster effort to challenge Israeli blockades or the IDF, but the structure of the UN Security Council (UNSC) makes it impossible to end the siege on Gaza.  

A US veto in the 15-member vote calling for an immediate ceasefire on Dec 8th effectively blocked aid to Gaza and further actions from the UN. In total, the US has vetoed 89 UN Resolutions, 33 of which have been used in resolutions condemning Israel’s occupation of Palestine and treatment of Palestinians.This selectivity in the application of international law, as it suits their interests, gives the UN and the P-5 a reputation of being disreputable on the world stage.  Because the shape of peacekeeping is so determined by the distorting effect of the P5, it is easier to imagine more just peacekeeping pursued under alternative models of global collective governance. 

One such possibility is a “World Parliament” model advocated by pacebuilding scholar Professor Tim Murithi, in which a 600-member global democratic chamber would replace the UN through regional alliances. Professor Amitav Acharya’s idea of “The Advent of a Multiplex World Order” which supports the existing Global South and would emerge as a result of dismantling the current system, is another possibility waiting in the wings should the UN collapse under its security council contradictions. 

To challenge the current form of peacekeeping means finding a new functional definition of peace. Freezing conflicts with blue helmets may stop some fighting, but it’s a response to the outward rupture, rather than the underlying causes of conflict, and it prioritizes settlement between armed bands instead of tackling injustice. Because peacekeeping efforts require the consent of the imperial powers that won World War II to authorize, they can serve to keep the oppressed, more often than not in the global south, in a state of stable tranquility. If they are to disrupt that calm injustice, then they would require intervention in the form of peacekeeping. 

The redefinition begins by impeaching the idea that peace needs to be “kept”, rather than built. Contained conflict and regional stability alone are insufficient aims for the work of peace.   If “peacekeeping” is to play a role in the future it must exist to resolve conflicts for people, instead of freezing them for empires. These missions must first target the unjust systems that created violence, instead of preaching non-violence, to those experiencing it. Missions should not intervene with the intention of making peace with the dire circumstance, but to remove the circumstance.

Justice cannot be an afterthought to peace. Only then can it be kept.

Aina Marzia is an incoming freshman at Princeton University and an independent journalist from El Paso, Texas covering intersectional politics. Her work has been seen in The Nation, Teen Vogue, The American Prospect, The Daily Beast, Grist, The New Republic, NPR, Business Insider, and more. She can be found on Twitter at @ainamarzia_ and Instagram: @ainamwrites